Monday, 23 March 2020
Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus Bill 2020, Guarantee of Lending to Small and Medium Enterprises (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020, Australian Business Growth Fund (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020, Assistance for Severely Affected Regions (Special Appropriation) (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020, Structured Finance Support (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020, Appropriation (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill (No. 1) 2019-2020, Appropriation (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill (No. 2) 2019-2020, Boosting Cash Flow for Employers (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020; Second Reading
We know that this is an unprecedented health crisis. Tragically, seven Australians have lost their lives, and more will do so before this ends. The number of positive cases is doubling every three days. We have a lot to do to contain this outbreak.
From the outset, Labor has sought to take a constructive approach to our engagement on both the health and the economic response. The health response must lead, but they are inextricably linked. That includes highlighting the deficiencies in the government's approach and injecting a sense of urgency that, frankly, has been lacking for too long. We will maintain the spirit of bipartisanship, but, as the alternate government, we must urge the government to do more and to do better.
On the health response, I urge the government to increase the level of testing of suspected COVID-19 cases, in line with the World Health Organization advice. Test, test, test! We should be testing every symptomatic person, quarantining positive cases in our hospital system, isolating all traceable contacts and introducing more and more social distancing measures. We absolutely have to do this, and we need to do it urgently.
I also urge the government to work with suppliers and our freight industry to improve the stocks of personal protective equipment, and to get these out to our health clinics as a matter of priority. The fever clinics being facilitated by the primary health networks need to be set up by next week—not May, as the government initially indicated. It is pleasing that the government has taken onboard Labor's calls to extend telehealth, but its response still falls far short of making sure that everyone can access health consultations by phone or video. The key response to the health crisis revolves around the rapid increases in social distancing and in travel restrictions to limit the spread of this virus. Everyone should be able to access medical advice from home at this time. People's lives depend on the government getting this right.
It is equally important that the government improves its communication with the Australian people. The mixed messages over the past fortnight have left Australians confused at this time of heightened stress and uncertainty. We know that, to limit the spread and to give us the best chance of getting through this, Australians must follow advice and limit their social contact. It is vital that the Australian government provide clear, consistent and simple advice. There have been times when this advice has not been consistent; the issue with schools is a clear case in point.
We know that the travel restrictions and social distancing measures so necessary for public health will have, and are having, a devastating impact on our economy and the livelihoods of so many Australian workers. For so many regional communities, this comes off the back of the devastating bushfires of this summer. Cruelly, these local communities had just started their long path to recovery. But, unlike a typical natural disaster, the COVID-19 outbreak and the necessary travel restrictions are not limited by geography.
Some of our biggest service sectors, including aviation, tourism, hospitality and the arts, have effectively shut down—not just this past week, when the government quite rightly intervened to take further social distancing measures; they had slowed down because of the lack of people travelling and the lack of people coming into our country to visit our tourism sectors, sectors that employ so many Australian workers both in our major cities and right across our regions. Casual workers have been told simply not to go back to work tomorrow, as there is no work for them. Permanent workers have been stood down without pay and asked to take all of their leave entitlements, with no guarantee that they will have any pay. Sole traders and small businesses have been left with absolutely nothing but rent and other bills to pay. Every one of these workers performs an important role in our economy and in our society. They put food on their families' tables, they help educate their children and they help keep other Australians employed as their wages and funds recycle through the economy and employ other people.
The priority for everyone in this place must be to support all of those Australian workers, to make sure that they still have work when we get through this. That's why yesterday's announcements are welcome. But they are clearly insufficient on a number of fronts. Firstly, they don't do enough to protect jobs and to support continuity of employment through this crisis. There is no guarantee that the cash provided to businesses will go to retaining staff or to their wages, maintaining that critical connection with employment and their employer. We have to contrast it with what the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has done, in terms of wage subsidies, and—I never thought I would be saying this of a Tory prime minister—the determination he has had to ensure that connection to employment and that people get paid. When we contrast that with this package, we know that this government is falling far short of where it needs to be.
Most likely, we know, most of the money going to business is going to be spent on rent. We know that because we are hearing that every single hour, through our electorate offices, as people with small businesses are ringing up, saying: 'What do I do? I want to keep my staff on but I've also got all of these other expenses, and there is no relief for this.' But the amount of money provided in this package is clearly inadequate for people in small business to be able to both pay their rent and their outgoings and also continue to keep their workers connected to their business.
Unlike in other developed countries, very little of this direct support flows straight to households and to workers, and when it does, in fact, it's often too late. Business support does not kick in until April. The second supplement for pensioners is not paid until July. It's only after Labor raised this point that the income support measures will now kick in, as we understand it, on royal assent to these bills, not in late April as the government was saying yesterday and as originally planned. How on earth they thought the people who are queuing up today in their droves at Centrelink offices could wait for any money until April is absolutely beyond me. Many struggling households could miss out on support, particularly given that there has been no change to the income support test for Newstart, or the new jobseeker payment as it's called. Where one partner loses employment but the other is just above the income test, the family will not receive any assistance through the jobseeker payment at all.
Instead, the government's answer for many of these workers is to access funds from their superannuation accounts. Labor is particularly concerned about the government's approach here. In the same announcement yesterday, the government acknowledged that withdrawing superannuation now will crystallise losses with its reduction to the minimum draw-down requirements for retirees, not to mention that the average superannuation balance for someone in their early 30s was recently as low as $33,000 for women and $43,000 for men, before the recent market slump. These workers will lose half or more of the current balance of their retirement savings if they have to bail themselves out. Such a withdrawal not only crystallises losses from the current market slump but reduces an individual's retirement savings by many thousands of dollars as a result of lost interest earnings over the coming decades. Young people who have to resort to this measure will be paying for this in their retirement. They will absolutely be doing so.
Moving into the specifics of my portfolio, particularly our transport sector and in our regions: over the past week, our airlines have grounded most of their fleets in response to the rolling increases in travel restrictions, social distancing measures and the slump in tourism. Further capacity reductions will be announced as a result of the Prime Minister's announcements yesterday. Qantas has stood down 20,000 workers, two-thirds of its workforce. Virgin is likely to take similarly drastic steps, and regional carriers, led by Rex but including many other smaller carriers, are reducing capacity and have publicly expressed concerns about cash flow and that they may well go to the wall. Our airports, which rely on passenger movement for their financial viability and employ more than 200,000 Australians, are also being affected dramatically by the slowdown.
To those workers in our aviation industry facing an uncertain time: we hear you. We want you to be supported through this period so you can play your role in rebuilding this vital industry once travel restrictions are lifted. The current structure of two major airlines with budget partners and sustainable regional carriers is critical for hundreds of thousands of jobs in our airlines, airports and associated industries. It is critical for competition for consumers. We cannot make any guarantees from opposition, but I can assure everyone in this sector that we will maintain pressure on the government to better support you and your industry.
I have twice written to the Deputy Prime Minister and minister for transport requesting sector-specific support for the aviation sector. While Labor welcomed the government's aviation package worth up to $715 million announced last week, we note that it is not enough. With fleets grounded, waiving fees and charges incurred when flying is clearly not going to help with cash flow constraints, because airlines are not flying. As a major employer, the aviation sector need sufficient access to cash over coming months to continue their scaled-back services for essential travel and freight and to maintain employment for as many of their staff as possible.
The government's small-business package announced yesterday will provide assistance for cash flow for some of the smaller regional airlines. While the economy-wide loan limit of $250,000 is a good start for some of the smaller regional airlines, frankly, when you look at the scale of some of the larger airlines, they're obviously not going to be eligible, nor will it be sufficient. Our aviation industry has connected regional Australians to our cities and our country to the world for over 100 years. It has gone through many changes in this time. We know that the government needs to redouble its efforts and work with our airlines to ensure that the current structure of the aviation industry is maintained beyond this aviation crisis.
Our freight and logistics supply chain sectors, both on land and sea, are also playing a really critical role in this time of crisis. There have been significant decreases in container freight out of China, impacting on jobs and supply chains from stevedores to ground transport. While reports are this is beginning to turn around, and there's been an increase in home deliveries, the downturn is hurting many owner-drivers and, of course, casuals. Again, the government must ensure that this sector is absolutely looked after.
On the area of regional development, so many of our regions have been deeply affected over the past fortnight. Increases in social distancing taking effect today will shut down many of our businesses. I note that yesterday the government quietly moved the $1 billion fund for disproportionately affected regions and communities from the trade portfolio to the regional development portfolio. The fund was created in the first stimulus package 10 days ago. I understand that the guidelines are yet to be finalised and that just 10 per cent of the fund is set to flow this financial year. The fund could and should help support the livelihoods of many Australians right now across regional Australia. I ask the government, particularly the Deputy Prime Minister, to urgently clarify the purpose of the fund and outline transparent decision-making processes for the allocation of this $1 billion fairly across affected regions. Regional economies, from my home town of Ballarat to Cairns in Far North Queensland, could benefit from this funding immediately and urgently. We cannot leave it too late, and it must be allocated fairly and transparently.
Over the next few months, as the crisis continues, we will face very, very tough times. People will feel alone, uncertain and afraid. These times will be easier and they will pass sooner if we look out for each other, support those in need and stand by all members of the community. I say to the people of Ballarat: my office will remain open for as long as it is safe to do so, regardless of whether we are there physically. We will be available by telephone and email to assist anybody who needs it. We will be particularly reaching out to the vulnerable in our community.
I want to conclude by thanking particularly the teachers in my community. I'm here today, being able to do my job, because you are doing yours looking after my 11-year-old son. Your dedication to our children as we get through this is so very, very much appreciated. To the healthcare workers across the community: we cannot thank you enough. In the days, weeks and months ahead you're at the front line of dealing with this pandemic. We must give you the space and the support to do so. (Time expired)